Is he an Andropov or a Gorbachev? Last May's presidential elections in Iran saw the unexpected victory of a liberal cleric, raising the hopes of reformers. But Fred Halliday explains how the country's religious and political constitution may inhibit reformist ambitionsby Fred Halliday / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
On 23rd May 1997 something extraordinary happened in Iran. On that day’s presidential election, Mohammad Khatami, a cleric of liberal reputation, was chosen by 69 per cent of the voters (on a turnout of more than 80 per cent) to be the country’s next president. The event was extraordinary for two reasons: first, because of the broad range of people who voted for Khatami-the younger generation, women, non-Persians (who make up half of Iran’s population); second, because once the four candidates were in the race, a free choice was allowed. It is too early to say what the import of this election will be. But Khatami’s victory, on what was universally seen as a reform platform, is the consequence of a change of atmosphere in Iran as the country nears the end of its second post-revolutionary decade. Khatami has captured this change.
Most observers had expected Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, candidate of the conservative right, to win-by fair means or foul. He did not; and on 20th August Khatami was sworn in as president. Contrary to expectations, the new president’s nominees for his cabinet were agreed to by the majlis (parliament) without exception. Perhaps more surprisingly, Mohsen Rezaie, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards-a centre of revolutionary militancy-resigned. The Guards, together with the regular army, will now fall under the control of Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the new minister of defence. After his resignation, Rezaie gave several critical interviews to the right-wing press: he suggested that the president should pay less attention to the building of “civil society” in a western sense and more to fulfilling Khomeini’s last testament. But the fact remained that Rezaie had yielded to the pressure of an elected president.
Khatami’s election has aroused great hopes in Iran on the part of his voters-and abroad, on the part of states that want to improve relations with Iran. Internally there would appear to be little support for reversing the Islamic revolution of 1979, but a large majority is in favour of far-reaching reform. First priority is the issue of the rule of law. Administrative systems are jumbled and corrupt; the parallel police and security organisations act independently of central control; and until Khatami’s accession, women on the streets were liable to harassment not only from regular police and revolutionary guards, but also from a more shadowy force, the ansar-i hizbullah (supporters of the party of God). The tide…